I’m yet, to my memory, to see a professional Shakespeare production in the US, so the decision to film and broadcast Julie Taymor’s spectacular thrust-stage take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a welcome one. Notwithstanding Spiderman (and perhaps that show’s cataclysmic production history unfairly detracts from the ambition and achievement therein), Taymor’s proven ability to juggle large casts, technical marvel, the vertical axis of the stage and nuanced performances brings a lot to Dream, creating a film that is beautiful to watch, even if the sheen perhaps masks some of the problematic ideological underpinning.
This film, more like the Globe screenings than the RSC or NT Live events, was pre-recorded rather than broadcast live. Taymor went much further than the Globe in privileging the filmic over the theatrical, however, including introducing cameras onto the stage to film the action in extreme close-up, the camera whirling between actors as if a participant. While for the live audience this was presumably a distraction, it offered rare immediacy and even danger for a cinematic audience, allowing for a broader range of perspectives. It also privileged a more filmic style of acting at times, as when David Harewood’s Oberon whispered to the camera as he cast his spells. Finally, this hybrid made the best possible use of Taymor’s integration of projection, carefully controlling the composition of the frame to show off the overlapping flags and banners onto which images floated.
This choice of filming style was most effective in the opening scene, which established the stakes of the play’s drama far more dangerously than any other production I have seen. As the camera span back and forth between Jake Horowitz’s Lysander and Zach Appelmann’s Demetrius, while Robert Langdon Lloyd stood firm as Egeus and maliciously demanded his daughter’s obedience, it seemed to catch the dizzied perspective of the scene’s two women; men made pronouncements and postured while the camera struggled to keep up and remain an active agent. Reminding me of nothing so much as the full-dress ‘rehearsal’ scenes of Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, the film made clear its investment in the conflict as it surrounded Lilly Englert’s Hermia with overbearing male authority figures shot from a low angle, leaning in and explaining where her choices were leading.
The film appeared in this first scene to promise a deep engagement with gender issues that was sadly never realised. Theseus and Hippolyta (Roger Clark and Okwui Okpokwasili) made for an impressively even couple, emerging together from the over-sized doll’s house that represented the palace and establishing two competing models of dominance – he loud and gestural, she towering and silent. These two graceful figures had unchallenged authority and military standing that evoked the danger of their conflict, echoed in the later appearances of Harewood and Tina Benko as Oberon and Titania who had been cast along racial lines and costumed to imply that the ‘love’ aligning the royal and fairy couples was associated with identity politics. Yet these two strong women were still sidelined in the camera’s dominance by Theseus and Oberon whenever they were on stage, Harewood’s half-naked body in particular becoming exoticised/eroticised as he performed his magic in slow, extended sequences.
Most frustratingly, this was yet another Dream that hated Hermia. Dressed in a dollish outfit, and speaking throughout in a slow, sing-song voice, Englert was at best without personality and at worst a victim of the production’s repeated acts of violence against her, from the ripping off of the actor’s clothes (along with those of Helena during the four-way confusion scene; the men, of course, were allowed to undress themselves willingly) to her brutal assault by the whole company with pillows, leaving her cowering and huddled, near-naked, on the floor of the stage – but still implicitly laughed at by production and audience. For a moment, after her abandonment by Lysander, I thought her childlike performance was going to be revealed as a conscious performance of ‘attractive’ girlhood that the forest would shake off her, but there turned out to be nothing more of Hermia than this, and as she stumbled towards sleep, the on-screen audience continued to laugh at her moans.
It wasn’t just the gender issues that were raised only to be forgotten or overwritten. The production’s opening sequence featured Puck lying down in a bed that then began ascending towards the ceiling, revealing intertwined branches holding it up. The Mechanicals entered and one severed the bed from the branches with a chainsaw, leaving a detached Puck to fly upwards into the sky. The potential ecocritical interest was not revisited, however. The casting of a multiracial group for the Mechanicals, too, squandered its potential in defaulting to what felt to me like lazy stereotypes. Snout snacked constantly and roared his character’s name, ‘Wall’, like a fiery Baptist preacher; Starveling’s performance was entirely camp drawl; Bottom was a fast-talking, arrogant New Yorker. The scenes with this group were elevated only by a quite extraordinary ass’s head for Bottom, with animatronic mouth that looked like a genuine extension of the actor’s own features. The final performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ was played very safely, notable chiefly for the extreme drunkenness of Egeus and the rowdy behaviour of all the nobles, although Taymor repeatedly shied away from offering any kind of sustained critique of their behaviour. However, the Spanish-speaking Flute (Zachary Infante) was extremely impressive in his reading of the (admittedly now widely done) emergence of acting quality in Thisbe’s death, the theatre hushing as he offered a sensitive and deeply felt final sequence, after which he played dead long after the rest of the Mechanicals had taken their curtain calls.
In interpretation, then, there was little of interest here, and much about which to be concerned. Yet perhaps much of this can be forgiven when you have Kathryn Hunter playing Puck and an extraordinary cast of children and extras as the spirits. An interview with Taymor makes clear that she began with Puck, and Hunter owned the show throughout. In ragged suit and hat, Hunter established a movement aesthetic for Puck that saw her bending her arms backwards, wrapping her legs behind her neck, taking on the characteristics of the animals she evoked and playing with the production’s cast of children, who sang, danced and tumbled gamely and with extraordinary cohesion throughout. At its best, this felt like circus, played against projections of clouds, waves and plants. Even when effectively creating drama school games (making ripples in a big tarpaulin laid across the stage) the visual impact was extraordinary, and against this playful backdrop the imposing figures of Oberon (bedecked in gold) and Titania (in white, with two facial spotlights built into her elaborate costume) looked all the more dangerous.
Taymor’s interview evokes Lord of the Flies in the treatment of the children, and there is something there. The children shifted from screaming pillow fighters to fascinated voyeurs, from tired wedding guests in beautiful outfits to baying hunting dogs tracking Theseus’s deer. The face paint and hand-crafted wind instruments (I thought they were didgeridoos, but my memory fails me) evoked particular but non-specific indigenous communities, the overwhelming impression rather being of a close relationship to nature. At Puck’s first speaking appearance, all the children performed the First Fairy together, laughing and challenging Puck alternately. With the children becoming the scenery, their role in evoking both innocence and a dangerous alternative to conventional society kept the tone of the production on the edgier side of comic.
Hunter’s Puck stage-managed the whole while overshadowed by the elemental projections, at once conjuring both Puck’s power and his/her smallness in the grand scheme of nature. The interaction between the spirits and their environment was one of cause and effect, especially as thunder and lightning presaged the arrival of Oberon and Titania, but was also playful. As Bottom was dragged off to Titania’s bower, Titania sat atop a balcony and pulled a huge sheet covering the stage towards her, dragging it between her spread legs until a gap opened in the sheets beneath her into which Bottom plunged headlong (and in case this was too subtle for you, the projections on the sheets then exploded into images of unfurling flowers). Spirits ran about the stage with ten-foot flags attached to their backs, which caught the projections and scattered them, creating three-dimensional layered images through which characters strode. Visually, this was one of the more magical Dreams of recent years, investing in the beauty and eerie majesty of the forest world. The mortals stumbling about this, blocked by the sticks held up by the ensemble or tormented by snakes created from the ensemble’s bodies, were lost and disrobed.
This was an inconsistent production, throwing more ideas at the canvas than actually stuck, but rarely letting up in energy and invention. It will doubtless be remembered for its acrobatics and visual spectacle, but I can’t help but wish it had committed more to the interesting and dangerous politics of its opening. If there was little here that hadn’t been done before, however, it was certainly done with far more style.